Good Questions + Tasty Quesadillas = Great SPJ Georgia Event!
By Marsha Walton, SPJ Georgia board member
It was a great way to rev up the contact list and get some tips on more pointed pitch letters! SPJ Georgia’s Operation Freelance II brought together a nice crowd and an insightful panel of writers and editors on Saturday at Lindbergh Center’s Taco Mac Restaurant.
Moderator Katja Ridderbusch kept up the pace as panelists addressed everything from delinquent payments: (“What’s the longest you’ve ever waited for a check?” “Still waiting!”) … To time management.
Tech, business, crime and political reporter George Chidi had some tips for those entering the freelance way of life. “Salesmanship, that is uncomfortable for some journalists. Networking is vital. Sales can be a volume process: Get your ideas in front of as many people as possible; identify all the places it might get published,” said Chidi.
And thicken your skin, he advised. “Don’t take rejection personally!”
Decaturish.com writer, lifestyle and culture specialist, and romance writer Nicki Salcedo advised that discipline is vital when you work for yourself.
“Time management is one of my strengths. I have a business plan and mission statement for everything. And I have 10-15 story ideas brewing at any time,” said Salcedo.
Views differed on whether it was ever appropriate to write for free. Some writers said they’ve done it for non-profits, or for causes they are passionate about. But most on the panel said, in effect, “don’t even think about it!”
“Don’t work for free. You devalue everybody’s work,” said John Ruch, who writes for several community and alternative publications as well as The Guardian.
Carolyn Cunningham, who writes primarily for religious publications, said she wrote for very little money early in her freelance career, and the exposure helped her secure more better paying assignments.
Social media is now a huge part of the work lives of most of the panelists.
“I’m the Facebook Queen,” said Jemille Williams of Jemille Omnimedia. “My passion is travel writing, I’ve started a Facebook group on that,” she said.
After lunch the editors took the stage. Joe Earle of Reporter Newspapers stressed that freelancers are seriously wasting everyone’s time if they don’t know the market they are pitching to. His publications cover Buckhead, Brookhaven, Dunwoody, and Sandy Springs. Period. So if your pitch is from across the river, in Cobb County, “You are dead to us!” he said.
Collin Kelley of Atlanta INTown said … spelling and punctuation count! If a pitch letter comes in riddled with grammatical errors, what can he expect from a finished story? He said social media has, unfortunately turned a lot of people into writers of shorthand nonsense.
Andy Miller of Georgia Health News says he welcomes ideas from young writers, who may not have a lot of experience. “They do stories I would never think about. That keeps us vibrant,” he said.
But he cautioned that some less experienced freelancers need to know straight up that their efforts have to be balanced. They can’t skew to just one viewpoint and call it a news story.
Radio producer Susanna Capelouto of WABE said a pitch letter had better be punchy. “I get bored so fast when I read a pitch,” she said. She also said the tone of a pitch letter often reflects what the tone of the story will be. “I am always looking for a creative angle on the obvious,” she said.
While these editors, like much of the planet, get bombarded with emails every day, it is probably OK to follow up once or twice to see if a pitch has hit the mark. Sometimes editors miss things, or put pitches in a “to do later” pile that gets overlooked.
And Dan Whisenhunt, founder of Decaturish.com, said sometimes an old fashioned technology works wonders. “People have forgotten what a phone is! Email makes it easy to be passive,” he said. And he says he’s very open minded about pitches. “Innovation never happens unless people try,” he said.
Marsha Walton, a second year board of directors member, is a freelance science and environment reporter and producer, working for the conservation series “This American Land” on PBS. She also works on the National Science Foundation’s video feature “Science Nation.” Marsha spent 17 years at CNN, covering science, technology and chasing a lot of hurricanes. She has degrees from Northwestern and Columbia universities. Walton resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Marsha’s Twitter handle is @marshawalton. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org